U.S. President Donald Trump largely ignores the past or tends to get it wrong. “What’s this all about?” he is reported to have asked on a visit to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, in Hawaii, in 2017. When he has paid attention to history, it has been to call on it as a friendly judge, ready to give him top marks and vindicate him: his administration, he has claimed repeatedly, has been the best in U.S. history. The evidence—something that historians, at least, take seriously—suggests a different picture.

Whenever he leaves office, in early 2021, 2025, or sometime in between, the world will be in a worse state than it was in 2016. China has become more assertive and even aggressive. Russia, under its president for life, Vladimir Putin, carries on brazenly as a rogue state, destabilizing its neighbors and waging a covert war against democracies through cyberattacks and assassinations. In Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, a new crop of strongman rulers has emerged. The world is struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and is just coming to appreciate the magnitude of its economic and social fallout. Looming over everything is climate change.

These troubled times are not all Trump’s fault, but he has made things worse. Flattery for dictators, especially coming from the leader of the most powerful state in the world, does not make them reasonable; it feeds their egos and appetites. Washington’s fitful and chaotic response to the pandemic has made the population of the United States and those of its neighbors more vulnerable to the virus, and by pulling the United States out of the World Health Organization, Trump is undermining its ability to deal with the current pandemic and the ones bound to come. Renouncing arms control agreements has made the world a more dangerous place. Trump’s bullying of U.S. allies and his attacks on NATO and the EU have weakened ties that have served the United States and its partners well for decades. And although the damage is difficult to measure, the United States has lost much of its moral authority.

Will the coming decades bring a new Cold War, with China cast as the Soviet Union and the rest of the world picking sides or trying to find a middle ground? Humanity survived the original Cold War in part because each side’s massive nuclear arsenal deterred the other from starting a hot war and in part because the West and the Soviet bloc got used to dealing with each other over time, like partners in a long and unhappy relationship, and created a legal framework with frequent consultation and confidence-building measures. In the decades ahead, perhaps China and the United States can likewise work out their own tense but lasting peace. Today’s unstable world, however, looks more like that of the 1910s or the 1930s, when social and economic unrest were widespread and multiple powerful players crowded the international scene, some bent on upending the existing order. Just as China is challenging the United States today, the rising powers of Germany, Japan, and the United States threatened the hegemonic power of the British Empire in the 1910s. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an economic downturn reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The history of the first half of the twentieth century demonstrates all too vividly that unchecked or unmoderated tensions can lead to extremism at home and conflict abroad. It also shows that at times of heightened tension, accidents can set off explosions like a spark in a powder keg, especially if countries in those moments of crisis lack wise and capable leadership. Had Archduke Franz Ferdinand not been assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914, World War I might not have erupted. One can only imagine the chain of potentially catastrophic events that could be set in motion if Chinese and American naval ships or airplanes collided in the South China Sea today.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, and it rhymes enough to make one uneasy. If the administration that succeeds Trump’s wants to repair the damaged world and rebuild a stable international order, it ought to use history—not as a judge but as a wise adviser. The past offers warnings but also encouragement. Moments of crisis are sometimes moments of opportunity. The end of the Thirty Years’ War brought the Peace of Westphalia and with it the principle of respect for national sovereignty. The Congress of Vienna, on the heels of the Napoleonic Wars, created a settlement that provided Europe with an unprecedented several decades of peace. The world wars of the twentieth century gave rise to new ideas and institutions for a stable and just international order based on cooperation and not confrontation. Once the Trump administration itself becomes history, world leaders can allow the existing fault lines to deepen—or they can work toward international peace and stability.

WARNING SIGNS

A knowledge of history offers insurance against sudden shocks. World wars and great depressions do not come out of the clear blue sky; they happen because previous restraints on bad behavior have weakened. In the nineteenth century, enough European powers—in particular the five great ones, Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom—came to believe that unprovoked aggression should not be tolerated, and Europe enjoyed more peace than at any other time in its troubled history until after 1945. Today, when states such as Russia or Turkey act in defiance of such restraints and face little in the way of sanctions, they come away emboldened, and others are tempted to follow their example.

Further hastening the breakdown of the international order is how states are increasingly resorting to confrontational politics, in substance as well as in style. Their motives are as old as states themselves: ambition and greed, ideologies and emotions, or just fear of what the other side might be intending. Preparing for conflict—or even appearing to do so—pushes the other side toward a confrontational stance of its own. Scenarios sketched out as possibilities in more peaceful times become probabilities, and leaders find that their freedom to maneuver is shrinking. In World War I, both the American and the Japanese navies started to contemplate the day when they would vie for control of the Pacific. In the 1920s and 1930s, each built bases, procured equipment, strategized, and trained with the expectation that it might one day have to fight the other. That did not make war between them inevitable, just more likely, since each side interpreted the words and actions of the other as evidence of hostile intent. After the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983, its leaders persuaded themselves that the United States was planning to use the incident as pretext to gin up a war and launch a sneak nuclear attack. Suddenly, even U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s more frequent phone calls with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seemed to be evidence of preparation.

World wars and great depressions do not come out of the clear blue sky.

Public rhetoric matters, too, because it can create the anticipation of, even a longing for, confrontation and can stir up forces that leaders cannot control. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt probably did not want war with Israel in 1967, but his eloquence and nods to Arab nationalism (such as his decision to close the Straits of Tiran) inflamed an already tense situation. Today, decades of “patriotic education” in China’s schools have fostered a highly nationalist younger generation that expects its government to assert itself in the world.

Defusing tensions is possible, but it requires leadership aided by patient diplomacy, confidence building, and compromise. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962—probably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War—U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found channels through which they could broker a face-saving deal. Unfortunately, compromise does not always play well to domestic audiences or elites who see their honor and status tied up with that of their country. But capable leaders can overcome those obstacles. Kennedy and Khrushchev overruled their militaries, which were urging war on them; they chose, at considerable risk, to work with each other, thus sparing the world a nuclear war.

Trump, too, has left a highly personal mark on global politics. In the long debate among historians and international relations experts over which matters most—great impersonal forces or specific leaders—his presidency surely adds weight to the latter. He has used the bully pulpit as a megaphone. His character traits, life experiences, and ambitions, combined with the considerable power the president can exert over foreign policy, have shaped much of U.S. foreign policy over the last nearly four years, just as Putin’s memories of the humiliation and disappearance of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War have fed his determination to make Russia count again on the world stage. It still matters that both men happen to lead large and powerful countries. Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania for over 40 years following World War II, was a tyrant to Albanians and a menace to his neighbors in the Balkans, but not a threat to the peace of Europe or the world. When Germany fell into the clutches of Adolf Hitler, in contrast, he was able to start a world war.

THE NOT-SO-GOLDEN AGE

In relatively stable times, the world can endure problematic leaders without lasting damage. It is when a number of disruptive factors come together that those wielding power can bring on the perfect storm. One need go back no further than to the international relations of the first half of the twentieth century to see this.

In the decade before the outbreak of World War I, many Europeans—perhaps a majority—looked back on the previous century with satisfaction, even smugness. The continent had come such a long way: it dominated much of the world and was enjoying ever-increasing prosperity and, it was hoped, lasting peace. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig called it “the Golden Age of Security.” Europe and the world were increasingly integrated through trade, investment, and communications. International law and multilateral agreements on such issues as arms control and the rules of war and a large and enthusiastic peace movement seemed firm impediments to war. Yet Europe had a darker side, and its troubles were piling up both in domestic politics and internationally. Within countries, acute political and class divisions, growing labor unrest, often violent revolutionary movements, and panicking upper classes strained even robust political systems. Rising ethnic nationalism shook multinational states such as Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Imperial appetites had not yet been sated by the carving up of Africa and much of Asia, and great powers now looked greedily at China and the Ottoman Empire.

Norms and practices that had restrained European powers began to weaken. The Concert of Europe was a shadow of its former self, and the great powers found it more and more difficult to act together. In 1911, when Italy invaded what is today Libya, it breached an unwritten understanding that no power would risk setting off a dangerous competition for the declining Ottoman Empire. The other great powers expressed regret but did little, and their inaction did not go unnoticed. In 1912, the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia joined forces to take what was left of Ottoman territory in Europe and soon fell out over the spoils. The Balkan wars that followed threatened more than the region. Austria-Hungary saw a Greater Serbia as a threat, whereas Russia saw it as a small Orthodox brother. The two powers came close to war. Had that happened, France might have felt obliged to support its ally Russia, and Germany might have come to Austria-Hungary’s aid. After a certain amount of belligerent talk and threatening moves, a peace of sorts was cobbled together, thanks mainly to Germany and the United Kingdom, which, for separate reasons, did not want a general war. Nevertheless, the war scare left behind a poisonous residue of mutual suspicion and resentment. Russia resolved to back Serbia in the future, and Austria-Hungary was as determined to destroy what it saw as a deadly enemy.

Bulgarian soldiers outside the Ottoman city of Adrianople during the First Balkan War, 1912
Bulgarian soldiers outside the Ottoman city of Adrianople during the First Balkan War, 1912
Wikimedia Commons

This series of crises showed that war was still a distinct possibility in European politics. Moreover, the division of the continent into two alliance systems, which some statesmen had assumed would create restraint, turned out to do the opposite. Considerations of prestige and the need to keep alliance partners happy meant that Russia found it difficult not to come to Serbia’s aid, no matter how recklessly that small country behaved. Germany’s leaders, for their part, feared that if they failed to back Austria-Hungary, they risked losing their only dependable ally. France was anxious to maintain its alliance with Russia, which it saw as a counterbalance to Germany, even if that meant supporting Russia in a quarrel with Austria-Hungary.

By 1914, confrontation had become the preferred option for all the players, with the exception of the United Kingdom, which still hoped to prevent or at least stay out of a general European war. Governments had grown accustomed to taking threatening actions, whether with troop movements or by ordering their diplomats home. Feeding the tensions further, Europe’s armies and navies were growing at an accelerating rate. The rhetoric, both public and private, became harsher. At a family wedding in 1913, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, chastised his British cousin King George V for siding with a decadent nation such as France and a semi-barbarous one like Russia. Across Europe, the press whipped up hatreds and ran scare stories about enemy plots. Although they might not have realized it, many Europeans were psychologically prepared for war. An exaggerated respect for their own militaries and the widespread influence of social Darwinism encouraged a belief that war was a noble and necessary part of a nation’s struggle for survival. 

Political and military leaders convinced themselves that potential enemies were on the verge of becoming real ones. The German high command feared that Russia’s modernization was proceeding so quickly that by 1917, Germany would stand no chance against its eastern neighbor. German leaders also assumed that the French were bound to come to Russia’s aid in a conflict, so that Germany would have no choice but to fight a war on two fronts. The Russian military similarly felt it might have no option but to fight a two-front war against both Austria-Hungary and Germany.

The only chance of preventing a local conflict from becoming a continent-wide conflagration lay with the civilian leaders who would ultimately decide whether or not to sign the mobilization orders. But those nominally in charge were unfit to bear that responsibility. The governments of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia had all failed to inform themselves of what their militaries were planning. Even British and French military leaders, whose countries had strong traditions of civilian control over the military, had made plans for joint military and naval preparations for war, going further than their governments had perhaps intended. 

In the last days of peace, in July and early August 1914, the task of keeping Europe out of conflict weighed increasingly on a few men, above all Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. Each proved unable to withstand the pressure from those who urged war. Each was weak in his own way. The Kaiser, who had backed down in previous confrontations, was afraid of being called a coward; the tsar feared for his throne and the honor of Russia; and the emperor—old, ill, and alone—could not stand up to his generals. All signed the mobilization orders put before them. The last two were dead by the time the war ended in 1918; Wilhelm had lost his throne and was in exile in the Netherlands. Europe was changed forever: Austria-Hungary had vanished, Russia was in the throes of a civil war, and the British and French victors were considerably weaker than they had been in 1914. The global balance of power had shifted, with a major new international player across the Atlantic and a stronger and more assertive Japan to the east.

THE MISUNDERSTOOD DECADE

With the benefit of hindsight, historians have often considered the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to be a failure and the 1920s a mere prelude to the inevitable rise of the dictators and the descent into World War II. It is true that Europe and the world faced many problems in 1919. As often happens at the end of wars, allies were drifting apart, and the winners and losers alike felt they had not come out of the peace settlements with their just spoils. Germans, particularly those on the right, loathed the Treaty of Versailles, whereas many French felt that it was too lenient. Italy and Japan argued that they had not been treated fairly despite having been on the winning side. The successor states to Austria-Hungary and the ones that had emerged out of the Russian empire were weak, economically fragile, internally divided by class and ethnicity, and prone to quarreling with one another. Founded on the basis of ethnic nationalism, all had substantial and often unhappy minorities. Added to this combustible mix was international communism. The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia encouraged a wave of revolutionary activity around the world. Increasingly obedient to Moscow, substantial communist parties in France, Germany, and Italy threw themselves into undermining the existing democratic structures in their countries.

Lately, however, some historians have begun to see that interwar decade in a different light—as a time of real progress toward a strong international order. World War I had forced an appraisal of what had gone wrong and what might be done to prevent another such catastrophe. The value of international cooperation had been a regular subject of debate since the previous century, and states had already taken some concrete steps toward it, with multilateral agreements, international courts, and even international conferences to deal with pandemics. So when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson laid out his vision for a new world order in his famous Fourteen Points speech of 1918 and in subsequent speeches, he found a receptive and enthusiastic audience around the world.

Historians have begun to see the interwar decade as a time of real progress toward a strong international order.

The establishment in 1920 of his brainchild, the League of Nations, was a significant step, even without U.S. membership: it created an international body to provide collective security for its members and with the power to use sanctions, even including war, against aggressors. Its first years were promising. It settled a 1923 dispute between Greece and Italy that had threatened to escalate into all-out war, monitored plebiscites in disputed territories in Europe, and coordinated a host of international agencies, from the forerunner of the World Health Organization to the International Labor Organization. The United States supported much of the league’s work from the outside and continued to assist in building peace in Europe. With the backing of their government, American negotiators helped broker two agreements on German reparations, the Dawes Plan of 1924 and the Young Plan of 1929, which facilitated German payments through foreign loans, among other things, and reduced the total amount owed.

Overall, the 1920s were a time of cooperation, not confrontation, in international relations. For the most part, the leaders of the major powers, the Soviet Union excepted, supported a peaceful international order. In 1921 and 1922, the United States held major naval disarmament conferences in Washington that helped freeze naval competition in the Pacific for the following ten years. At the same conference, nine powers with interests in the Pacific signed a treaty to respect the territorial integrity of China. The government of Japan, although still angry over the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, saw itself as part of the international order and cooperated in sustaining it. Under the enlightened leadership of Gustav Stresemann, who was foreign minister from 1923 to 1929, Germany joined the League of Nations and once again became a respectable member of the international community. Alongside the French politician Aristide Briand, Stresemann worked to lay the basis for greater Franco-German understanding. In 1926, the two men won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Italy, Benito Mussolini played the part of a statesman, working with France and the United Kingdom to defuse some of the tensions resulting from the peace settlements. At the Locarno conference of 1925, when Germany accepted its new western borders and agreed to a nonaggression pact with Belgium and France, Italy acted as a guarantor alongside the United Kingdom. And under the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, eventually more than 50 signatories, among them France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, renounced war as an instrument with which to settle disputes.

The promise of the 1920s was cut short by the Great Depression. Bank failures, sharp reductions in domestic production, and a precipitous decline in world trade led to mass unemployment and deepening poverty even in prosperous countries. Citizens lost faith in the ability of their leaders to cope with the crisis. What was more ominous, they often lost faith in capitalism and democracy. The result was the growth of extremist parties on both the right and the left. Although some democracies were able to adjust and survive, others were not. In Germany, the Weimar Republic came to an ignominious end in 1933, when antidemocratic conservatives invited the leader of the Nazi Party to become chancellor, foolishly thinking they could exploit him for their own ends. Instead, Hitler used and discarded them. In Japan, ultranationalist militarists seized power. Mussolini saw which way the wind was blowing and eventually threw his lot in with the Axis.

At the League of Nations, 1933
French National Library / Wikimedia Commons

The catastrophe that followed showed yet again how important the individual can be in the wielding of power. Hitler had clear goals—to break what he called “the chains” of the Treaty of Versailles and make Germany and “the Aryan race” dominant in Europe, if not the world—and he was determined to achieve them at whatever cost. Once in power, he banned all political parties except his own, outlawed labor unions, and reorganized the institutions of civil society. He welcomed the prospect of confrontation and war, which he saw as a means to bring the German nation together and imbue it with the proper military virtues. The military, delighted by the increases in defense spending and beguiled by Hitler’s promises of glory and territorial expansion, tamely went along. In Italy, Mussolini, who had long dreamed of a second Roman Empire, abandoned his earlier caution. On the other side of the world, Japan’s new rulers were also thinking in terms of national glory and building a Greater Japan through conquest.

Preoccupied with their own problems, the leaders of the remaining democracies were slow to realize the developing threat to world order and slow to take action. The French, facing deepening political divisions at home, looked to the British to react, but they had their own domestic challenges and were seriously overstretched abroad, with growing problems in their empire. Both hoped for support from the United States, but in his first term, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was focused on solving the problems at home.

The League of Nations, only ever as strong as its members allowed it to be, was powerless in the face of open acts of aggression. In 1931, Japan seized the Chinese region of Manchuria, in breach of the league’s covenant and Tokyo’s own treaty obligations, and suffered few, if any, real penalties. Four years later, Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in a brutal campaign of conquest; again, democratic states did little by way of sanctions. As early as 1933, Hitler had pulled Germany out of the league, and, step by step over the next several years, he violated the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, moving troops into the Rhineland in 1936 and annexing Austria in 1938. That year, France and the United Kingdom handed over a large part of democratic Czechoslovakia to Germany in a doomed attempt to appease Hitler. In 1939, Hitler showed that he could not be appeased and seized what was left of Czechoslovakia. France and the United Kingdom, faced with a choice between continued capitulation and resistance, finally chose the latter, and war broke out that fall. This time, war was the result not of reckless brinkmanship or weak governments but of powerful leaders deliberately seeking confrontation. Those who might have opposed them, such as the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, chose instead to appease them in the hope that war could be avoided. By failing to act in the face of repeated violations of treaties and international law, the leaders of the democracies allowed the international order to break.

OMINOUS ECHOES

Led by Roosevelt, statesmen in the Allied countries were determined to learn from this mistake. Even as the war raged, they enunciated the principles and planned the institutions for a new and better world order. Three-quarters of a century later, however, that order is looking dangerously creaky. The COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the world’s economy and set back international cooperation. Tensions are building up as they did before the two world wars, with intensifying great-power rivalries and with regional conflicts, such as the recent skirmishes between China and India, that threaten to draw in other players. Meanwhile, the pandemic will shake publics’ faith in their countries’ institutions, just as the Great Depression did. Norms that once seemed inviolable, including those against aggression and conquest, have been breached. Russia seized Crimea by force in 2014, and the Trump administration last year gave the United States’ blessing to Israel’s de facto annexation of the Golan Heights and may well recognize the threatened annexation of large parts of the West Bank that Israel conquered in 1967. Will others follow the example set by Russia and Israel, as happened in the 1910s and the 1930s?

As the current world order weakens, the confrontations have grown more pronounced. Russia continues to meddle wherever it can, and Putin dreams of destroying the EU. U.S.-Chinese relations are increasingly adversarial, with continued spats over trade, advanced technology, and strategic influence, and both sides are developing scenarios for a possible war. The two countries’ rhetoric has grown more bellicose, too. China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, so named by Chinese officials after a popular movie series, excoriate those who dare to criticize or oppose Beijing, and American officials respond in kind. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, has tweeted that COVID-19 may have been brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military, and Trump speaks of the “kung flu.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls the Chinese Communist Party a “rogue actor”; according to China’s state-controlled press, Pompeo is “deranged” and “the public enemy of mankind.”

It is easy to downplay this posturing as merely for show and complacently assume that the world will get through the crises to come. One can guess what those might be, but it is impossible to foresee how different factors will intersect, or in what order. How the world copes will depend on the strength of its institutions and, at crucial moments, on leadership. Weak and indecisive leaders may allow bad situations to get worse, as they did in 1914. Determined and ruthless ones can create wars, as they did in 1939. Wise and brave ones may guide the world through the storms. Let us hope the last group has read some history.

CORRECTION APPENDED (August 13, 2020) 

An earlier version of this article misidentified the waterway that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed in 1967. It was the Straits of Tiran, not the Strait of Hormuz.

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  • MARGARET MACMILLAN is Professor of History at the University of Toronto, the Visiting Distinguished Historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of War: How Conflict Shaped Us.
  • More By Margaret MacMillan